12 Years a Slave is the most important American movie of the year. Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a cultured black northerner who was duped, kidnapped and then sold into slavery in 1841, the film immerses the viewer in the everyday brutality of the Antebellum South without reserve, without mawkishness, and certainly without the postmodern slapstick of last year’s Django Unchained. The steadfastness of its vision marks a watershed in the cinema of American slavery. Here, the film’s two principal actresses––mesmerizing newcomer Lupita Nyong’O and rising star Sarah Paulson––discuss how they landed their roles, the courage it took to enter such a harrowing story, and the focus required by the film’s notoriously demanding director, British filmmaker and visual artist Steve McQueen.
Lupita Nyong’O plays Patsy, a gorgeous slave-girl befriended by Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and victimized by Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his jealous wife (Paulson). When I sit down with the actress, it’s startling to meet a young woman glowing with both hope and excitement, so different from her character.
You went straight from an acting MFA to playing this role. That’s a big jump! How did you land the part?
I was just about to graduate from Yale’s drama school and I was finally allowed to go out for professional auditions. My manager received the script and thought I’d be good for it. We put me on tape in New York and then they called me in for an audition in LA. Which was a very hard one-hour audition. Finally I was sent down to Louisiana to audition for Steve [McQueen]. So it was three auditions in three different states.
When Steve chose you did you he say anything about what he saw in you?
In Louisana I had a one-hour on-camera audition and then we went out for tea and he just interrogated me about my life––who I was, everything. That evening he invited me for dinner with some of his fine art representation when Michael [Fassbender] suddenly appeared and joined the dinner party. I was very surprised about that. Maybe he was doing a chemistry read, I don’t know. The next day I went back to New Haven and he called me and said, “I’d like to offer you the part.” My knees went weak. I sat on the pavement and said, “I’d like to accept the part.” [Laughs.] The next thing he said was, “There’s a lot of work to do but I think you have it in you.” And that was it. I only found out after we were done filming that I was up against over a thousand other actresses.
Obviously it was a role you wanted, but it’s an extremely intense and courageous role for you to play. In a lot of Steve’s work, there’s a deep interest in the body and opening up the body to abjection. He asked a lot of you. What prepared you for that?
I think Yale, number one. It was Yale school of drama. There is no way I would have even got past the first audition if I hadn’t done my training there. I think it opened me up to a larger existence and gave me the courage––to fail. Because that is one of the biggest lessons. Sometimes you’re going to fail and that’s okay and life goes on. But you’ve got to try because that’s the only way you can fully lend yourself to other human experiences. And then there was trust in Steve. In watching Hunger and Shame and then meeting the man, I knew that he was in pursuit of truth. He was not taking advantage of me. I knew I was in good hands. And I could allow that kind of grief into my life because I was safe. Then there was also facing the fact that this was true. This was someone’s life who tread this earth. Someone like Patsy made it possible for me to be here today. Without these people and what they endured, I would not be on American soil and having the privilege of playing this role.
While we’re here in this intense place, I wanted to ask you about the long take in the middle of the film. Because that is one of the most intense and difficult things to watch as a viewer. So I can’t imagine what it would be like as an actor to perform. How did Steve prepare you?
That’s the thing about working with Steve and the culture of the set that Steve establishes. Steve demands the best. He expects the best. And everyone wants to give their best. Michael talks about a “vibration of focus” on set. It felt like everyone was taking ownership for their particular role at all times. Not just in that scene. Steve shoots everything in long shots. We always went from the beginning to the end of the scene. So that one for me as an actor was no different, to just go through it. And it was actually a favor to do it in one take because we didn’t have to do it many times. We had to be focused and get it. And believe me, I had reason to want to get it, because I didn’t want to have to do it too much. It was painful. Very, very painful.
The film depicts a world so different from your own experience––and the experience of all of the principal cast. How do you go into that world and come out of it every day?
I had rituals before and after every day of shooting. And still, in doing this film I didn’t sleep. I was an insomniac. At one point I had to take a sleeping pill because I was like, “If I don’t sleep, I’m going to lose my mind.” [Laughs.]. I was never really totally successful in leaving Patsy behind on set. There was always something that lingered, something of her pain. But the success was in trying to leave her behind. And also working with the other actors. We were in it together. As much as our characters were antagonized by each other in the drama, we were in it together and we needed each other to make it work. We took refuge in each other. We broke bread together, we had beers, we went go-carting. We had a bonding away from set. I think we owed it to the people we were playing to enjoy our freedom. And to always be reminded that we can step away from this.
Sarah Paulson plays Mary Epps, a cold-hearted, abusive matriarch. In person, the thirty-eight year old Florida-native comes across as a serious and thoughtful actress, committed to her craft..
How did Steve McQueen get in touch with you?
I auditioned. My agent sent me the script and said that they were about to cast another actress for the part, but if I wanted to be in the running I had until the next day to audition. I was in New York and the casting director was in LA so I made a tape and sent it off. Nowadays it’s not even a DVD, it is all online. You just press a button. But the next day I got a call saying that Steve McQueen was very intrigued––that was the word they used. Then I got a call two days after that saying he chose me.
Why do you think he chose you?
He said that he showed my audition tape to his daughter and his daughter was terrified of me. And that was a good indication that I might be the girl for the part. [Laughs.] I didn’t know what to make of that, but I thought, “I’ll take it.”
Does it require more courage to play a role that’s so morally twisted?
It’s funny. I have an actress-friend who read the script and said she couldn’t believe I said yes to the part. She thought the character was too horrible. I found that to be so curious because from an acting standpoint I never think about how things will end up. Will I be liked? Will I be vilified? Will I be hated? I don’t ask myself those questions. Will this be bad for my career because I’m playing a mean woman? I just thought it was an opportunity for me to do something I’d never done before. I’d never played a hard-hearted person before. So the questions I asked were about how to make her human. Or how to discover for myself her human motivations.
You said this was the first time you’d played a character like that. How different was it?
Well I’ve played people who are shut down, who are troubled. But I’d never played someone for whom coldness and cruelty was their default setting. I don’t think she’s a terrible person; I think she behaves terribly. And I came up with reasons for that. But I’d never played someone who’d always reach for the fire poker before she’d reach for the olive branch. That was very new.
Was there a scene that was the hardest to shoot––for you or for the crew?
The scene when Lupita is tied to the pole and whipped ruthlessly. It is a long scene that we’re all in. The focus changes in and out on people. The thing that I think is so great about the movie is that there aren’t constant close-ups to tell you what people are thinking. Instead you’re left with more of a mystery, the way life is. But that was a hard scene to shoot because there’s Lupita tied to a pole, helpless, and I had to stand there and be completely indifferent to it. That’s not an easy thing to do.
It’s such a long scene with no edits. Everyone has to be in character for the whole of it. What did you tell yourself before they started rolling?
I was trying to have Steve’s voice in my head, which was “Do not make excuses for her.” She is who she is. She’s a product of the time. She’s a product of her own bigoted upbringing. I don’t think she has the depth of character to challenge what she’s been taught. So she believes what she’s doing is right and just. And I had to get behind that fully. That’s the only way to get through those things is to attach yourself to your character’s commitment and then deal with your feelings about it afterwards when you’re in your trailer or hotel room. I felt the best way I could honor Solomon Northrop was to try to depict this woman as accurately as I could––in all of her horror. If I’d tried to do anything to make it more palatable I thought that would be a disservice to history.